Yining (AsiaNews/Forum 18) Children are not allowed inside Catholic churches in Xinjiang (north-western China), this according to Fr Sun Zin Shin, a Catholic priest in Yining (Ili-Kazakh autonomous prefecture), who spoke to Forum 18.
Father Sun said one schoolboy who managed to get into last December's Christmas service in Nilka (120 km east of Yining) despite a police checkpoint to prevent this was subsequently beaten by his teacher who had seen him go inside.
The clergyman said that in Nilka state officials visit Catholic families and warn them that they would have "problems at work" if their children do not stop attending church. He complained about intimidations by local authorities and strict controls over minorities designed to keep them away from religion. Religious groups come in fact under the jurisdiction of the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) and interference has reached the point that the authorities even demanded Catholics reduce the size of the cross on their church.
Father Sun is adamant: "We are citizens and taxpayers just as much as the atheists, but in the eyes of the state we are second-class people," he said. "We have the absurd situation that we are paying taxes and these same officials and law-enforcement agencies watch us and prevent us from professing our faith". What is worse, according to Father Sun, holding services anywhere but in the four registered churches of the prefecture is banned.
"In many towns we don't have a registered church, but we have parishioners," he explained, "yet we are categorically forbidden to hold services in private apartments under threat of several days' administrative arrest. The authorities basically regard believers as potential terrorists. I am not afraid to speak about this openly. I want the whole world to know about the problems of believers in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region".
Yining is 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of the Kazakh border and 600 kilometres (375 miles) from the capital Ürümqi.
Orthodox Christians don't fare much better even though for them the main problems are the lack of clergy and places of worship.
Under Chinese law foreign clergymen can work in China only if they have a permit from the central government in Beijing and for now there are no Orthodox priests who are Chinese citizens.
In December 2003, the dean of the Zharkent prefecture of the Astana and Almaty Orthodox diocese of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Fr Vianor Ivanov, spent a week under house-arrest in Yining and was then deported from China for illegally working with local Orthodox believers.
Protestants are more cautious. Luda Li, the pastor of the local Protestant church, said that she and her community had no problems with the authorities since they closely adhere to RAB rules.
She said the rules forbid holding services except in registered churches, adding that baptisms can be performed only after prior authorisation from secular authorities. Similarly, religious marriage is allowed only after it has been registered with civil authorities.
Ethnic Uighur and Dungan imams and Yen Shi, the only local Buddhist monk, declined to talk to Forum 18 without RAB approval. Yen Shi did say however that "even local people who want to find out about Buddhism have to get the permission of the Religious Affairs Bureau before talking with me".